To sleep somewhere, to surrender our unconscious bodies to a strange bed or a spot on the ground while our minds go wandering — how is it that we feel we haven’t really visited a place until we’ve done this? It is not enough merely to have looked, to have listened, to have smelt and touched and tasted, though all these things matter too.
Perhaps we desire intimacy with the land on the same terms we seek it with a lover. I think it’s more than a euphemism to say of a couple that they’re sleeping together. The language recognizes that what’s important is not the endlessly variable act of lovemaking itself, which is a private matter and doesn’t really concern the larger community, but the quality of a relationship, whose power and potential longevity are clearly signalled by this most basic form of communion. At one level, obviously, it’s a demonstration of mutual trust. At another level, it suggests a shared habitation, even if the partners retain separate residences or rarely sleep in the same place twice.
These speculations are necessarily tenuous because the science of sleep is still in its infancy; researchers argue over the most basic questions about why we need to sleep and dream at all. It’s evidently part of our shared heritage with other animals, which, lacking symbolic language, may rely on dreaming to sort and archive their memories. Even in many pre-literate societies, the world of the past and the ancestors is assumed to remain accessible through dreaming, where hints about the world to come can also be gathered. Conceptions of these worlds vary widely from one culture to the next, so generalization is difficult, but in most cases there’s a direct link between time and distance, and the ability of the dreamer to travel very rapidly or instantaneously from one place to another is key to her clairvoyance. Why this link? Because life is envisioned as a journey, a route along a network of paths; to travel back in time is to travel in space as well.
We know from our own experience how memories are tied to the specific matrices in which they were born, and can be triggered by detailed cues such as odors — which even our inferior primate noses can distinguish by the hundreds — or the gestalt of a place. If I want to relive a memory, my first step is to recall in as much detail as possible the place where it occurred. The modern demotion of place to mere setting or environment simply doesn’t jibe with lived experience.
Maybe sleeping in a place adds to our feeling of truly inhabiting it because it symbolizes its inclusion in these worlds of memory and prescience. It solidifies its position in time and space by dissolving the horizon, which we cannot do away with as long as we are awake and our physical bodies and perceptions still impose strict limits. This in turn suggests why sleeping together is so basic to making love: after the relatively fleeting ecstasy of sex itself, sleep offers another, longer-lasting way to dissolve boundaries. And even as the sex (depending on the partners) may create a new person, the shared sleep creates a new place from the intersection of paths.
Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).